J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Benjamin Franklin: Lefty or Righty?

Back at this posting, a long-time Boston 1775 reader asked whether Benjamin Franklin was left-handed, as portrayed (by Howard Da Silva) in the movie 1776 and as stated on many websites.

In the book Right Hand, Left Hand, Chris McManus considers the evidence. In 1779 Franklin wrote an essay titled “A Petition of the Left Hand,” which laments the neglect of the sinister. Of course, Franklin also wrote a “Petition of the Letter Z” (1768), and no one argues that we should assume he spelled his name with a Z.

In 1762, Mason Chamberlin (1727-1787) painted Franklin from life, as shown here. This portrait is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though this image comes from a Smithsonian webpage. And it shows Franklin holding a quill in his right hand.

Of course, a painting isn’t a photograph; it reflects how the artist chooses to portray the subject. And it’s possible that Franklin learned to write this way even though he was naturally a lefty. But until folks find better evidence, it looks like Benjamin Franklin was right-handed.


Rob Velella said...

Such a shame! As someone afflicted with southpaw sinistrality myself, I can attest to the old adage that only left-handed people are in their right minds. It would be nice to have someone like B. Franklin, printer, as part of our elite cadre.

Mr Punch said...

Since we write right to left, a lefty has a tendency to blur the writing by dragging his/her hand over it. People used to be taught to write right-handed -- especially important, I'd think, for writing with a quill pen.

The picture may be the best available evidence, but it's pretty weak.

Rob Velella said...

To Mr Punch: I think the suppression of natural sinistrality was less because of practical concerns like smudged writing (which, by the way, isn't hard to avoid doing) but more metaphysical reasons - like superstition (note that the term for left-handedness is "sinister").

J. L. Bell said...

The question of Franklin’s handedness brings up an epistemological question.

Absent any evidence at all, we know that a man has only about a 10% chance of being left-handed. So the “default” position would be that Franklin was much more likely to have been right-handed.

Franklin wrote a lot about his early training, a lot about scientific topics, and even that one essay about the left hand, but he never described himself as left-handed.

So even without this portrait, people who wish to label Franklin as left-handed seem to have a heavy burden of proof and light evidence.

J. L. Bell said...

I just flipped through my copy of E. Jennifer Monaghan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, and I couldn’t find anything about writing students having to hold their pens in their right hands—or about how they learned to adjust their lessons when holding their pens in their left hands.

Nor could I find anything on this subject in my notes on Ray Nash’s articles about writing instruction.

So handedness doesn’t seem to have been a big issue in colonial writing instruction. That could mean that every boy was expected to write with their right hands from the start, no questions asked. Or it could mean that using one’s left hand wasn’t a big deal.

Rob Velella said...

My guess is that it was a big deal, but just so commonplace that it wasn't written about so obviously. I found a book from the 1880s or so once that actually had a chapter on "curing" the evil left-handedness of a child. Even through the 1940s in Europe, while my naturally-lefty father was growing up, he was forced to use his right hand, lest he suffer broken bones... quite literally.

J. L. Bell said...

I’d really like to find some reference from sometime in the eighteenth century about the difficulties or evils of writing with the left hand. It’s clear that “left-handed” was a pejorative in some contexts, and I’ve found fencing lessons entirely written for right-handed fencers. But with all the attention British-American culture paid to genteel handwriting, I’m surprised I can’t find any discussion of handedness in that activity.

Benjamin Franklin said...

This is an interesting fact. As one commentator said before, it is probable that if he was left-handed, he was taught to write right-handed.

Anonymous said...

What about all of the references stating that Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence with his left hand? Is it possible that he might use his left hand for signatures vs. using his right for longer prose?

Anonymous said...

"For centuries lefthanders were "taught'' to write right-handed often "encouraged'' to make the switch by teachers whacking their left hands with a ruler (happened to Cole Porter -- he developed a stutter, never learned to write in cursive, jotting his beautiful lyrics in a kind of calligraphy.

J. L. Bell said...

How far back do those references to Franklin’s signature go, and what evidence are they based on? I can find such references in relatively recent books about left-handedness, but they don’t cite evidence, and the authors are obviously seeking as many admirable examples of sinistrality as they can claim.

Among the signatures on the Declaration, Philip Livingston’s is the most upright. Franklin’s slants to the right like most others.

I’m not sure why Franklin would have signed his name and written letters and essays with different hands. If he’d trained himself to do so, it would be odd for him never to have mentioned that, even in his “Petition of the Left Hand.”

J. L. Bell said...

What’s the evidence for the “for centuries” part of the remark? I know that left-handers were taught to write with their left hands in the late 1800s and later. But do we have evidence from the eighteenth century?